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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

U.S. Might Have Erred in Deleting Security Video

(CN) - The United States cannot dismiss a lawsuit over its alleged failure to preserve videotape that might show a Social Security Administration guard tackling a woman and sitting on her after yelling at her to "behave like a lady," a federal judge ruled.

Lacey Prewitt says she visited the Elgin, Ill., offices of the Social Security Administration in January 2008 and fought with SSA employee, Anju Parikh, about whether she was entitled to benefits. Parikh allegedly shouted at her to "sit down!" as she tried to leave while insisting she was unemployed.

Then Parikh asked security guard Ervin Gartner to escort Prewitt out of the building, according to the complaint. As he did so, Gartner allegedly told her "that if she did not behave like a lady next time she came into the SSA Office, he would arrest her."

Moments later, Gartner placed Prewitt under arrest, allegedly tackling her, pinning her to the ground, yanking her right arm to handcuff her and sitting on top of her until the police arrived.

Gartner and an SSA manager, Jim Bushman, told the police that Prewitt assaulted the Akal Security guard. Prewitt said she had to be hospitalized for her injuries, and a court dismissed the charges of disorderly conduct she faced for the incident.

Prewitt filed suit in May 2011 against the United States, Gartner, Partkh, Bushman and Akal for infliction of emotional distress, spoliation of evidence, malicious prosecution and abuse of process.

Prewitt said she repeatedly requested security footage from the SSA office, but did not comply and told her the recordings had been overwritten before her request.

"The court can reasonably infer that the SSA office possibly had possession of the recordings at the time of Prewitt's initial request and subsequently destroyed the recordings," U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras wrote.

The judge also rejected the United States' argument that a reasonable person could not have foreseen that the recording would be material evidence in a civil action. "Prewitt had an altercation with federal employees, was injured and was immediately transported to the hospital," he wrote. "A reasonable person should have foreseen that Prewitt might respond with a lawsuit."

Prewitt can also pursue the emotional distress claim since that stems form "Parikh shouting at Prewitt and contacting Gartner to escort her out of the SSA office," as well as Gartner's alleged battery, which Prewitt is pursuing in a separate action.

Parikh's actions are not related to Gartner's later actions or any prohibited tort claim, according to the court.

After refusing to dismiss the spoliation of evidence and emotional distress claims, the court noted that the Federal Tort Claims Act expressly provides sovereign immunity for any claim arising out of malicious prosecution or abuse of process against a federal employee acting within the scope of his employment. Thus Prewitt cannot pursue those two claims.

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